Sometimes a film comes along and makes you re-evaluate what makes good cinema. I mostly go into films looking for entertainment and, at best, something to think about. I like being challenged, and surprised, and captivated. So far this month I’ve had varying degrees of all three. I’ve talked about stuff I’ve seen in terms of credibility and realism – mostly in the context of a film’s own internal logic. A body-morphing humanoid works perfectly well in The Fifth Element, but would look slightly out of place in 17th Century France (although given the slapstick nature of The Four Musketeers, they’d probably just shrug and call for more wine).
It’s not often that you come across a film that’s so painfully authentic that you find yourself shouting at the screen, using mostly the language that made this an 18 Certificate. Sweet Sixteen is one of those films. I lived in central Scotland for four years – it was rough. The beauty of the hills was offset by the grim poverty of the surrounding towns and villages. The central belt, in between the municipality of Glasgow and the genteel tourism of the Trossachs, was bleak, neglected and utterly depressing. It was a no-man’s land; a commuter belt for Glasgow and Edinburgh, with little investment, jobs, or means of escape. Even the weather was shit.
That’s the area where this story takes place – Greenock, to be exact. The teenage NEDs (non-educated delinquents) slouch around the council estates, looking for something to do. We’re introduced to 15 year old Liam (Martin Compston),who is counting the days until his mum is released from prison. Refusing to act as a drug mule for his mum’s boyfriend, he is violently kicked out and moves in with his older sister, single mum Chantelle (AnnMarie Fulton). Discovering where his mum’s boyfriend keeps his drugs stash, he steals it and starts some low-level dealing to drum up some cash. He soon attracts the attention of a local drug boss, who spies potential in this young entrepreneur.
This is a devastating film. It’s at once a character study and a morality tale. Watching it in a week where government measures push 200,000 children into poverty, it’s also a political blindside against a society which fails to provide any semblance of care, hope, or prospects for certain communities. Liam is teetering on the brink of adulthood, trying to take responsibility for his dissolute mum, but still very much a child. His first forays into gangster-dom are counterbalanced with fending off his giggling sister as she discovers him trying to take his first shave.
Liam is pitifully naive both in his sense of his own invincibility, and the modesty of his aspirations. The story is the anti-Goodfellas, showing the corruption of a young mind, but with all the glamour of a static caravan and an en-suite bathroom. For his sister, success means passing exams and getting a part time job in a call centre. For Liam, it’s about providing a home for his family. He just wants to be with his mum, but when his dream finally comes within reach, he’s betrayed by the person he trusts the most.
I wouldn’t even say this is hard to watch. It’s beautiful and sophisticated storytelling – powerful, gripping, and utterly realistic. I’ve crossed the street to avoid people like Liam, without even thinking about the sweetness and vulnerability that could lie behind the tough facade.